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LE Magazine August 2006
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Death by Medicine


By Gary Null, PhD; Carolyn Dean MD, ND; Martin Feldman, MD; Debora Rasio, MD; and Dorothy Smith, PhD

Public Suggestions on Iatrogenesis

In a telephone survey, 1,207 adults ranked the effectiveness of the following measures in reducing preventable medical errors that result in serious harm.47 Following each measure is the percentage of respondents who ranked the measure as “very effective.”

  • giving doctors more time to spend with patients (78%)
  • requiring hospitals to develop systems to avoid medical errors (74%)
  • better training of health professionals (73%)
  • using only doctors specially trained in intensive care medicine on intensive care units (73%)
  • requiring hospitals to report all serious medical errors to a state agency (71%)
  • increasing the number of hospital nurses (69%)
  • reducing the work hours of doctors in training to avoid fatigue (66%)
  • encouraging hospitals to voluntarily report serious medical errors to a state agency (62%).

Drug Iatrogenesis

Prescription drugs constitute the major treatment modality of scientific medicine. With the discovery of the “germ theory,” medical scientists convinced the public that infectious organisms were the cause of illness. Finding the “cure” for these infections proved much harder than anyone imagined. From the beginning, chemical drugs promised much more than they delivered. But far beyond not working, the drugs also caused incalculable side effects. The drugs themselves, even when properly prescribed, have side effects that can be fatal, as Lazarou’s study6 showed. But human error can make the situation even worse.

Medication Errors

A survey of a 1992 national pharmacy database found a total of 429,827 medication errors in 1,081 hospitals. Medication errors occurred in 5.22% of patients admitted to these hospitals each year. The authors concluded that at least 90,895 patients annually were harmed by medication errors in the US as a whole.48

A 2002 study shows that 20% of hospital medications for patients had dosage errors. Nearly 40% of these errors were considered potentially harmful to the patient. In a typical 300-bed hospital, the number of errors per day was 40.49

Problems involving patients’ medications were even higher the following year. The error rate intercepted by pharmacists in this study was 24%, making the potential minimum number of patients harmed by prescription drugs 417,908.50

Adverse Drug Reactions

More recent studies on adverse drug reactions show that the figures from 1994 published in Lazarou’s 1998 JAMA article may be increasing. A 2003 study followed 400 patients after discharge from a tertiary care hospital setting (requiring highly specialized skills, technology, or support services). Seventy-six patients (19%) had adverse events. Adverse drug events were the most common, at 66% of all events. The next most common event was procedure-related injuries, at 17%.6

In a New England Journal of Medicine study, an alarming one in four patients suffered observable side effects from the more than 3.34 billion prescription drugs filled in 2002.51 One of the doctors who produced the study was interviewed by Reuters and commented, “With these 10-minute appointments, it’s hard for the doctor to get into whether the symptoms are bothering the patients.”52 William Tierney, who editorialized on the New England Journal study, wrote, “given the increasing number of powerful drugs available to care for the aging population, the problem will only get worse.” The drugs with the worst record of side effects were selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), and calcium-channel blockers. Reuters also reported that prior research has suggested that nearly 5% of hospital admissions (over 1 million per year) are the result of drug side effects. But most of the cases are not documented as such. The study found that one of the reasons for this failure is that in nearly two thirds of the cases, doctors could not diagnose drug side effects or the side effects persisted because the doctor failed to heed the warning signs.

Medicating Our Feelings

Patients seeking a more joyful existence and relief from worry, stress, and anxiety often fall victim to the messages endlessly displayed on TV and billboards. Often, instead of gaining relief, they fall victim to the myriad iatrogenic side effects of antidepressant medication.

Moreover, a whole generation of antidepressant users has been created from young people growing up on Ritalin®. Medicating young people and modifying their emotions must have some impact on how they learn to deal with their feelings. They learn to equate coping with drugs rather than with their inner resources. As adults, these medicated youth reach for alcohol, drugs, or even street drugs to cope. According to JAMA, “Ritalin® acts much like cocaine.”53 Today’s marketing of mood-modifying drugs such as Prozac® and Zoloft® makes them not only socially acceptable, but almost a necessity in today’s stressful world.

Television Diagnosis

To reach the widest audience possible, drug companies no longer just target medical doctors with their marketing of antidepressants. By 1995, drug companies had tripled the amount of money allotted to direct advertising of prescription drugs to consumers. The majority of this money is spent on seductive television ads. From 1996 to 2000, spending rose from $791 million to nearly $2.5 billion.54 This $2.5 billion represents only 15% of the total pharmaceutical advertising budget.

While the drug companies maintain that direct-to-consumer advertising is educational, Dr. Sidney M. Wolfe of the Public Citizen Health Research Group in Washington, DC, argues that the public often is misinformed about these ads.55 People want what they see on television and are told to go to their doctors for a prescription. Doctors in private practice either acquiesce to their patients’ demands for these drugs or spend valuable time trying to talk patients out of unnecessary drugs. Dr. Wolfe remarks that one important study found that people mistakenly believe that the “FDA reviews all ads before they are released and allows only the safest and most effective drugs to be promoted directly to the public.”55

How Do We Know Drugs Are Safe?

Another aspect of scientific medicine that the public takes for granted is the testing of new drugs. Drugs generally are tested on individuals who are fairly healthy and not on other medications that could interfere with findings. But when these new drugs are declared “safe” and enter the drug prescription books, they are naturally going to be used by people who are on a variety of other medications and have a lot of other health problems. Then a new phase of drug testing called “post-approval” comes into play, which is the documentation of side effects once drugs hit the market. In one very telling report, the federal government’s General Accounting Office “found that of the 198 drugs approved by the FDA between 1976 and 1985 . . . 102 (or 51.5%) had serious post-approval risks . . . the serious post-approval risks (included) heart failure, myocardial infarction, anaphylaxis, respiratory depression and arrest, seizures, kidney and liver failure, severe blood disorders, birth defects and fetal toxicity, and blindness.”56

NBC News’ investigative show “Dateline” wondered if your doctor is moonlighting as a drug company representative. After a yearlong investigation, NBC reported that because doctors can legally prescribe any drug to any patient for any condition, drug companies heavily promote “off label” and frequently inappropriate and untested uses of these medications, even though these drugs are approved only for the specific indications for which they have been tested.57

The leading causes of adverse drug reactions are antibiotics (17%), cardiovascular drugs (17%), chemotherapy (15%), and analgesics and anti-inflammatory agents (15%).11

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